The Jury Room  (Week 5)                                                                                                                                          Posted 18th May 2014

Looking for the great good place or...

Has anybody seen my idyll?                                                              From The Herald : Sat 25-Apr-1998



A cottage in the Highlands, the Purple Sage says.

Ye reckon Gus?

Matt the Mesomorph seems to be trying to imagine it.

Not a big place. Books everywhere. Telly optional. A pub not too far away. Serves Guinness. Just near enough to stagger back from in the dark. Trees, a glen, a loch. Thoreau with Guinness. A cottage in the Highlands.

Midges, Greyman says.


Midges. Got the biggest midges in the universe in the Highlands. I think that's what happened to the pterodactyl. Miniaturised itself and migrated to the Highlands. I was hospitalised by midges once in Skye. Doctors thought I'd been attacked by flying rottweilers. They don't show the midges on the postcards. Well, they do. They can't avoid them. But people think they're just low-lying clouds.

So what? Dave the Rave says. They only come out in the summer. So you've got three bad days. You could put up with that, Gus.

Gus's dream of the perfect place doesn't seem enhanced by Dave's encouragement.

What about Spain? Matt says. Some of the fellas Ah used to know have went out there. After they made their money. They seem to enjoy it. Sea, sun and sangria, eh?

Sea, sun and sangria? Glad to see ye're readin at last, Matt, Gus says. Try something besides a brochure next time, though.

The main thing your mates like about it, Dave says, is that the polis canny catch them there. After they made their money? The problem is most of them hand-made it in the hoose. Be your own branch of the Bank of Scotland.

Eric, you know Spain, Matt says. What d'ye think?

Eric the Red, the owner, is standing in for Harry Kari on his night off. This means that, Eric being in his eighties, everything that happens behind the bar seems to be in slow motion. Even the optics appear to be on a drip.

But the slowness of the service is compensated for by the fact that nobody has to listen to Harry's woes. And nobody has to hear yet another story illustrating the amazingly human qualities of his dog, Bruce. How Bruce actually nags him if he stays out too late. How Bruce, he would swear, can tell the time.

(What kinda cigarettes does Bruce smoke? Gus the Guru had once asked solemnly. Harry had laughed at the ludicrousness of the joke. Aye, that'll be right, he said. But he likes his beer. Tartan Special. Has to be Tartan Special).

Spain? Eric says. Too noisy for my liking. Noise was hellish. And dust? Dust everywhere. And I kept wishing they wouldn't leave lifeless bodies lying around. But that was during the Spanish Civil War. It's maybe changed since then.

Not much, Dave the Rave says. Least not if ye go to Benidorm.

People who retire abroad on their money, Greyman says. Most boring people in the world. Imagine mixing with them in Spain. Like living in a cemetery with sunshine.

The search for the idyllic place isn't going too well. Dave's bright image of Thailand clouds over instantly at Gus's mention of organised paedophilia and child prostitution. When Greyman describes the studio flat he would have in Paris, Eric gives him Jean-Marie Le Pen as a neighbour. The only idyllic place OU Wilson can think of is his house three years ago, before his wife Samantha started the Open University and before his teenage son decided that he was Rambo and his teenage daughter that she was Mata Hari.

Dave suggests asking Stare-at-the-wa (who is, surprisingly enough, staring at the wall) where he would like to live.

Probably Mars, Gus says. But then he lives there already, doesn't he?

Where did the idylls go? I find myself wondering. Perhaps they fell through the hole that has been made in our innocence by the demystification of the world. The mystique of place has always depended partly on distance and in our time all distances have contracted dramatically. Everywhere seems nearer to everywhere else than it ever did before.

Then again, the terms in which you travel will determine where it is you arrive. If you find your own, unique way to a place, you have more chance of finding your own, unique place. You will have created your individual perspective on it by the angle from which you came.

For most of us these days, all travel is tourism. And tourism is the technique of travelling towards a preconception. As a tourist, you order a place from a brochure the way you order a fast-food carry-out from a menu.

Not only can you book an adventure to almost anywhere but you can demand assurances that when you get there it will be made in many ways indistinguishable, apart from the scenery, from the place you left. You will travel not towards a mystery but carrying a more or less expensive ticket like an insurance policy. I think of a friend of mine who went a safari holiday to Africa and came back complaining that he hadn't seen enough of the animals he had wanted to see. All the elephants seemed to be in their beds, he said. It was as if he had paid for Serengeti to deliver and it hadn't. (Is the manager in?)

Commerce, of course, is the idyll-killer. It travels everywhere like smallpox, capable of burying almost all distinguishing features beneath a mass of industrial pock-marks. I remember going through Central America in a series of rattle-trap buses. It was an exotic experience. I was wondering if the squawking chickens at the back of the bus had to pay a fare. Around me broad Indian faces were carved into inscrutable masks. I might as well have been in the company of Atahualpa. This was the stuff of strangeness.

Then I noticed that at the entrance to nearly every village we came to there was a wayside sign bearing, in small letters, the name of the village and, in very large letters, the legend: Pepsi Cola. (This is not, I probably don't need to tell you, the name of a tribal god.) I had the weird sensation that I was travelling through a vast advertisement, as if the Indians and I were merely extras and the places just locations, and maybe even the heat had been arranged as a thirst-inducing device.

It's not just the environment the big companies have been assiduously polluting. It's the uniqueness of many ways of life. They could look at Eden and see nothing more than an untapped market. If someone really were to discover King Solomon's Mines now, the place would be set up as a rival to Disneyland in a fortnight.

Besides the attempts of the modern travel industry to process the natural variety of place into a plastic uniformity, there is the further problem of the changed nature of the traveller. For us, television has made a virtual reality of the world.

Sitting in our living-rooms, we can not only observe in close detail sand-storms in the Sahara, ice-floes in the Arctic and a tornado at work in America. We can have our own picnic at Hanging Rock with a TV dinner. We can travel imaginatively by train across the Bolivian Altiplano without even having to change seats. We can become privy to the sex life of the leopard while eating a fish supper. We can stare down the jaws of an alligator and not spill a drop of our McEwan's.

All of this can be wonderful, of course, but like all tourism it carries a price tag. Part of the cost of knowing the world by proxy is a kind of degenerative condition of the powers of imagination. If the process is repeated often enough, the most amazing sights may begin to appear banal. Instead of having our wonder at the world enhanced, we can find it diminished, because our experience has not made it ours.

If we stare at it long enough, that hypnotic eye in the corner can convince us that what we are seeing is the world instead of an artefact made from the world, a series of deliberately edited highlights. This came home to me very forcefully during the Gulf War, when I sat awestruck, seeing ferocious rocket-attacks that came across as bland as video games. But this was no Play Station. Behind those impressive coloured flashes, people were frying alive.

But if you were watching it all on television, it took a serious act of imagination to pull yourself out of the trance of images and try to conceive the horror of the human reality behind it. I would imagine quite a few people didn't bother to make the effort. I can remember a pilot being interviewed about a bombing raid he had been on. A Fourth of July fireworks display, he said. Baghdad lit up like a Christmas tree, he said. He seemed to have the empathy of a slot-machine. And he had been there. But perhaps he watched it all on a monitor as well.

It is often said that TV and video tend to stultify the imaginative capacities of a lot of children. Having watched children get out of bed and immediately wrap a programme round their heads like an oxygen tent, I'm not inclined to argue. The telly seems to be the means of communication they relate to most naturally. (Many children I come across these days appear to think a series of simultaneous monologues is conversation.) Douse the telly or the video and watch their eyes glaze over. Someone seems to have switched off the life-support machine.

But observing what we may think is a lack in contemporary childhood shouldn't blind us to its counterpart in contemporary adulthood. If they're not as good as they should be at imaginative play with only their heads for company, neither are we any more. We're all so pummelled with pseudo-scientific data that we can be intimidated out of our dreams. After all, you can't include them in statistics.

I suppose I am myself restricted these days to a kind of DIY idyll. I have to admit that for me the great good place is always accidentally discovered and temporary and only realised in retrospect and that its essential geography is always other people - that lost afternoon in the sun with Siobh‡n, the spontaneous midnight snowball-fight in the street with my children, swimming with friends off Fintragh  Strand. When you go back, you can't find it again. You will have to discover another one.

Maybe the point about an idyll is that you can't fix it permanently in place. It is less an expression of geography than a contradiction of it, a moment of lay mysticism when place transcends itself and becomes simply the intensity of your experience of it. The rest is a dream but a good one.

And a harder one to have these days than ever, Gus says.

Where you are is always the only place to be, Eric says. You just better make it good. At least, like a lot of other people, we know it shouldn't be like this. So we better make it better. The revolution starts here, boys.

Aye, but when? Greyman says.

Sometime after the next drink, Eric says. This one's on me.

He busies himself behind the bar.

Aye, Matt says. The world's getting smaller and smaller.

Aye, Gus says. Soon be the size of a public toilet.

The anaesthetic arrives.